The top ten traits of great managers
Management Style

The top ten traits of great managers
Traits may not be inborn; they have to be inculcated at a young age


No other single factor approaches manager style in terms of its impact on the critical business metrics of employee performance, retention, absence, and claims. Businesses recognise this, which probably accounted for much of the $US366 billion spend on corporate training globally in 2018. That’s more than $100 per employee per annum in the global workforce of 3 billion employees, despite the fact that the majority of these employees have $0 spent on training and development. According to US Bureau of Economic Anlaysis (2018), almost half the global spend is in the US, which boasts $US166 billion spent on their 160 million workers – more than $1,000 per employee per annum .

Managers, the good, the bad and the great?

In his book. “The No Asshole Rule - Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t” (which won the Quill Award for the best business book of 2007), Stanford Professor Bob Sutton spells out the damage poor managers can do to workplace morale and efficiency, and it’s huge.

The oppressive behaviours that characterise “Asshole” managers include insults, violation of personal space, touching, threats, sarcasm, humiliation and other actions.

The impact is felt not only by the “victim” but observers of the behaviour as well. Co-workers, and even family and friends, are negatively affected. One British study of more than 700 employees in the public sector found that 73% of those who witnessed bullying incidents experienced increased stress, and 44% feared they would become targets themselves. Asshole managers can not only harm productivity of their victims, but virtually everyone in the workplace.

It would appear that spotting bad managers is fairly easy, but what about the good and the great?

What employees appreciate about their managers is comparatively basic, and common sense to most. A recent Gallup Survey found that good management-staff relationships rests on four foundations:

  • Managers who show care, interest and concern for their staff,
  • Employees to know what is expected of them (role clarity),
  • A role which fits the employees' abilities (job fit),
  • Regular positive feedback and recognition for work well done.

The research concluded that teams who rated their managers highly in these four areas also scored highly on productivity and profitability.

What this means is that traditional management training, which focusses on control, co-ordination and correction, rather than care, concern and encouragement, is misguided. So much for good and bad, what about GREAT?

In the Situational Leadership Model adopted in the SHAPE Survey, we recognise there is no “one size fits all approach” to managing people. Managers need to be flexible, and deploy an inspiring combination of insight, business knowledge, personality, emotional intelligence, communication and behaviour change theory to do the job well. Management is art AND science.

“Project Oxygen” was Googles’ attempt to understand the characteristics of great managers. The following list summarises their findings. None of these should be surprising. Any focus group could have come up with a similar list – care, communication, fairness and vision are hardly leading-edge concepts in business. This project did however serve as a reinforcement of the basic tenets of good management and is certainly worth reading. As you do, consider your own strengths and weaknesses with regard to each point and use this to determine where improvements might be made.

Top ten traits of great managers

The defining characteristic of a great manager is a person who creates an environment in which employees can, and will, perform optimally. It is an enabling role – enabling people to do their best. The following traits support this role.

  1. CARING – great managers are genuinely interested in people’s success and personal well-being. They demonstrate this by regularly “checking in” with people regarding how they’re going, both at work and outside work.
  2. COACHING - Managers who are good coaches focus on developing the people they work with as well as getting the job done. Good coaches “tailor” their interactions according to the needs of the employees they manage. This means increased support for new employees, whilst avoiding micro-management of experienced staff. They encourage employees to present solutions to problems, rather than solving problems for them. This creates a sense of “ownership” by the employee, and the subsequent increase in self efficacy leads to greater confidence in future decision making.
  3. COMMUNICATION - Managers who are great communicators are good listeners. They “read” situations well in order to adopt the style that best delivers the outcome required. They are “assertive” in the sense that they communicate without anger or passivity – not too much emotion, but not too little.
  4. DEVELOPMENT – Great managers show interest in the career development of their staff. They take time to discuss long-term career goals and help them clarify potential career options both internally and externally.
  5. EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE – Great managers remain calm and productive under pressure and cope well with change. The “mirroring” effect ensures most of the people reporting to them will do likewise.
  6. FAIR TREATMENT – Great managers practice procedural fairness, meaning that the process involved in decision-making is fair and proper. It follows that the outcome will be fair, unbiased, and deliver the appropriate outcome for all. No “Captain's picks”.
  7. NURTURING INNOVATION - Managers who support innovation empower their teams to make decisions, learning from failures in the process - “Fear not failure, fear only the lack of a constructive response to that failure”.
  8. RESULTS ORIENTED – Results oriented managers ensure that performance standards are maintained. They work with team members to help remove blockers impeding task completion.
  9. TECHNICAL CAPABILITY - Managers who have the technical capability add value to their teams. They empathise with the challenges the team face and have the necessary skills to help team members develop appropriate solutions.
  10. VISION AND GOAL SETTING - A great manager ensures the vision and strategy of the organisation is translated into an actionable vision and strategy for the team. They help people understand how their role contributes to the organisation’s success.

Management vs leadership

“Management’s job is to convey leadership’s message in a compelling and inspiring way” There is a muddy distinction between the concepts of managing and leading in business. Almost all leaders are managers to some degree, but most managers are not leaders in the traditional sense.

The defining characteristics of leadership are “vision” - the ability to see where the optimal future of a business lies, combined with the ability to foster support for the vision in followers who will do the heavy lifting to realise the vision. A bad leader is a manager who rose above his station.

The “manager vs leader” debate has been exhaustively covered in the business literature for decades, and whilst opinions vary, one common feature is the agreement that different situations require different leadership styles. A more “flexible” leader may cross boundaries, being an effective leader across various industries, in different economic situations, and in different phases of the evolution of a business. Less flexible leaders tend to require an alignment of factors that mean their particular skills and attributes come to the fore – “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”.

This appears to be most obvious in the political arena where history has shown that changing leaders in response to changing economic or social circumstances, or even national existential threats (i.e. war) have changed the course of history (think Churchill, Lenin, Roosevelt).

Born or made?

A common saying that “Leaders are born but managers are made” suggests that some indelible traits from early life provide the foundation for leadership, but management, lending itself to a more formulaic approach, can be taught and/or learned.

Management gurus are quite opinionated on such matters, but unfortunately their opinions vary as they usually base their conclusions on personal experience with all its inherent biases (most notably confirmation bias – the unconscious act of considering only those events that support pre-existing views, while at the same time dismissing information that contradicts this view).

It’s not these people we should be turning to for answers – it’s the behavioural and developmental psychologists.

These academics can answer the three questions which address our prime concern as to whether we can teach people to lead.

  1. Is there a defined skill set or group of personality traits that is characteristic of good/great leader?
  2. At what stage in life do these skills/traits become evident?
  3. Can these be learned?

Borrowing a concept from the field of Boolean Logic, if leaders are born, the answers would be 1) Y, 2) Quite young, and 3) N.
If leaders are made, the only answer required is 3) Y. If the answer to 1) is “no”, then all bets are off and the whole premise of born/made leaders becomes irrelevant.

From what we’ve learned so far about leadership, the “situational” aspect of leadership argues that different circumstances require different styles of leadership. We must, therefore, answer no to 1) and say all bets are off … unless we have flexible leaders. Maybe flexibility, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances rather than be married to concepts whose time has passed, is the foundation of great leadership.

If we take a quick look at some of the traits leaders are supposed to have and consider whether these are innate or learned, we will answer question 3). Consider these traits – are they learned or innate?

  • Patience
  • Empathy
  • Active listening
  • Reliability
  • Vision
  • Creativity
  • Positivity
  • Effective feedback
  • Timely communication
  • Team building
  • Flexibility
  • Risk-taking
  • Ability to teach and mentor

The academics are pretty clear on this one. Most of these traits are developed early in life when neuroplasticity ensures the young adaptive brain wires itself in a manner consistent with the needs of the individual at the time. Growing up in a hostile home environment wires the brain for threat identification and response, not empathy.

Some of these traits however can be “tweaked” with appropriate training, but they will probably never rise to the level seen in people whose upbringing hardwired them in at an early age.

As Walter Mischel demonstrated in the famous “marshmallow tests” in the 1960s, traits such as impulse control and delayed gratification, both pivotal EQ skills, were evident in some kids at the age of 4, and not much changed in the subsequent 20-30 years. Leaders are therefore made, not born, but they’re made young!

Management Style